Advertisements, arguably, provide role models to whom consumers can identify, and guide consumers to what they (the advertisers) consider to be the most desirable products (Sender). “…Advertising has consistently reflected prevailing views of appropriate gender relations and heterosexual norms, both endorsing “proper” femininity and masculinity” (Sender, 302). Social heteronormativity emerges through all forms of modern media: television, magazines, film, etc. This ideology, has consumed the consumer, and infected almost every dimension of consumers’ lives, including most poignantly, children’s toys. Products and toys marketed for children partake in methods of gendered socialization, because these gender-specific (gender bias) toys have become socially normalized.
On one popular children’s toy website, toys are categorized into several different groups, each displaying a picture and a short description generalizing which toys it contains. For example, the categories labeled ‘Arts & Crafts’, ‘Preschool’, ‘Dolls & Stuffed Animals’, and ‘Pretend Play & Dress-Up’, all display images of young girls, while ‘Science & Discovery’, ‘Bikes, Scooters & Riding Toys’, ‘Book, Movies & Music’ and ‘Learning & More’ categories show pictures of young boys. Observing the male/female categorical representation, there is an overwhelming constructionistic pattern expressing the disproportion and misrepresentation of genders. These fabricated gender-specific classifications have become accepted societal norms, and in turn have led to the gendered socialization of children via the products marketed to them.
In addition to the overall gender bias of the pictures/categories, an interesting paradox emerges between the ‘Arts & Crafts’ category, and the ‘Book, Movies & Music’ category. Coupling ‘Movies & Music’ with boys, and ‘Arts & Crafts’ with girls, segregates the collective universality of “the arts” by suggesting (through use of pictures) which mode of artistic expression is ‘appropriate’ for either males or females. The addition of ‘Books’ to ‘Movies & Music’ automatically associates the category with ideas of higher learning, intelligence, and education. Conversely, associating ‘Crafts’ with ‘Art’ can have a degrading effect (on the category) because of condescending views towards ‘crafts’ as not an elite method of art, but rather a simple pastime for children. The method of placing seemingly candid pictures of children above categories describing specific hobbies and toys, automatically pre-determines those categories’ gender norms in the mind of the shopper. Regardless of whether a person agrees with these gender categories, they subconsciously force the shopper to make the decision of either accepting the gender roles depicted in the pictures, (shopping for a girl, means focusing on the Dolls & Stuffed Animals category) or rejecting them (shopping for a girl, means focusing on any category).
The featured “girl’s toys” reflect messages of vanity, creativity, care giving, hyper-emotionality, submissiveness, privacy, and everything (that is) “femininity”. Play kitchens, costumes, jewelry, housekeeping products, vanities, make-up, hair and nail sets, puppets, and pretend electronics, are sub-categorized under the ‘Girl’ heading. These toys implicate in a young girls mind that she belongs inside the home, tending to the cooking, cleaning, and (of course) keeping herself presentable.
The added pretend to the electronics heading is another way of showing girls that they are not smart enough or skilled enough to handle ‘real’ electronics, and that this pretend substitute should be adequate. Toys geared for girls encourage minimal imagination, and do not encourage learning or critical thinking, or even talking at all! “In ad after ad girls are urged to be “barely there” – beautiful but silent” (Kilbourne, 263). The symbolic nature of the Puppet reinforces this ‘silent’ behavior, personifying how a gender-normative woman should behave: quiet, obedient, and ready for the puppet master.
Equally, disconcerting messages of gender-normativity are reflected in featured “boy’s toys”: science, logistics, exploration, violence, technology, sports, and everything (that is) “masculine”. Toys featured under ‘boys’ have a much higher intellectual and technological level compared to the ‘girls’ toys. Sub-categories highlight a plethora of academic subjects: astronomy, math, geography, biology, chemistry, and physics. Microscopes, building kits, telescopes, reading and writing kits appear exclusively under the ‘boys’ heading. The assumed intent of helping boys learn about the world ultimately defines the role of males, and what their focus should be.
Additionally, there are many action-figures featuring superheroes, sports athletes, movie celebrities, and video game characters. Stereotypical “masculine” images, which these iconic figures posses, can make boys feel as though they are inadequate for not embodying these “masculine” qualities. Besides having a gender-socialized body, these action-figures hold important and powerful positions- may it be in the fantasy world, or the real one, and their positions become the idealized vision of success.
There are children’s toys which can (maybe) be considered non-gender-specific, but even that can be debatable. Can a ball, ever be just a ball?
Creative Designs. “Mr. Clean 14 Piece Cleaning Playset with Pail, Gloves, Mop, Broom, and Sponges”. 20 May 2008 http://www.toysrus.com/product/index.jsp?productId=2330766
Kilbourne, Jean. “The More You Subtract, The More You Add: Cutting Girls Down to Size.” Gender, Race, and Class In Media. 2nd ed. Eds. Gail Dines and Jean M. Humez. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2003. 263.
Sender, Katherine. “Selling Sexual Subjectivities: Audiences Respond to Gay Window Advertising.” Gender, Race, and Class In Media. 2nd ed. Eds. Gail Dines and Jean M. Humez. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2003. 302